With great excitement and a strong desire to learn and be in awe of humanity’s best, I attended my first Parliament of World Religions.
I was not let down, indeed my soul was lifted.
Much of its ascension was due to the concentration of ancient rites aimed at intriguing the spirit – smells, sights, and sounds asking the stogie mind if the soul could arise & come out to play; but, the majority was the people.
Everyone walked around with that same glow. Really everyone. We were all on our best behavior, unhurried, and free to find ourselves amongst the most remote other.
Sikhs regal in white turbans and kaftans, male and female priests austere in their well known daily vestment – white square collars and black shirts, women with angel wings, monks in robes ranging from black to gold, aboriginals of every corner of the world adorned with the symbols of Mother Earth.
But the interfaith community gets stuff done! For some of the traditions, more is happening in collaboration with other worshipers than is possible inside the often factious groups.
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, challenges all believers in his 28 October interview with Krista Tippet on the podcast On Being and in his book the Dignity of Difference to “hear the voice of God in a language, a sensibility, a culture not our own? Can we see the presence of God in the face of a stranger?”
At the Parliament, the answer is resoundingly yes.
What is the Parliament of World Religions & Why Is It Important to Me
The Parliament is the oldest, the largest, and the most inclusive gathering of people of all faith and traditions.
The first Parliament took place in 1893. Since, this historic event has taken place in Chicago, USA; Cape Town, South Africa; Barcelona, Spain; Melbourne, Australia – and now in Salt Lake City, Utah! I an elderly couple, both retired theology professors from the United Kingdom, that were groupies of The Parliament, that had been to each one since their youth.
The Parliament is the faithful’s Olympics — a time to educate and entertain, to rekindle old friendships and begin new ones. It is also, as its name suggests, a time to come together and make a political statement about peace and compassion and stewardship. Since its inception, when Sami Vivekananda addressed the Chicago Congress of World Religions, the focus has been on the demonstration of unity of faithfulness while celebrating traditions.
But their time is come; and I fervently hope that the bell that tolled this morning in honor of this convention may be the death-knell of all fanaticism, of all persecutions with the sword or with the pen, and of all uncharitable feelings between persons wending their way to the same goal.
It is reported that there were 9,806 attendees, performers, and volunteers from 73 countries, 30 Major Religions and 548 Sub-Traditions that participated in the Parliament in Salt Lake City in 2015.
I attended as part of my reinvention. I had recently been demoted at work in a mild political maelstrom and was working with a life coach to try and understand where I had improvements to make and how I could avoid the outcomes that have marked a 7-year itch my company has had with me over the past 15 years. I was intrigued and open. I knew I could help and be a positive, smiling, inquisitive source of help. I was excited to meet interesting people and even though he ended up not being able to attend for health reasons, I wanted to be in the presence of the most present of all humans, his Holiness the Dali Lama.
So I signed up months in advance to volunteer and then to volunteer calling volunteers and finally when the day came I donned my long-sleeved green cotton shirt and went to a sacred form of work — temple host.
Note from the President of the Parliament of World Religions
If you were there you already know it: it was simply amazing.
The major news reports are echoing what people keep telling me. “This was the best Parliament ever!”
- Nearly 10,000 participants & women and young people under 30 made up just more than 65 percent of participants at the 2015 Parliament!
- 73 countries represented
- 30 Major Religions
- 548 Sub-Traditions
- 1800 Presenters
- 1000+ Programs
- It was the first women’s assembly & the majority of all emcees were women
- It was the first live streamed Parliament: 28,000 views
- The largest number of programs with 1,800 presenters
- The first Mayor’s panel on compassionate cities along with the first panel of police chiefs
- Imam of Mecca for the first time attended the Parliament
- And who says there is no free lunch in America, Sikhs came with kirpan and conquered the Parliament by sharing their langar tradition all five days.
People were saying “thank you” and “congratulations,” but their lit faces were way ahead of their words. They meant every word of it. Spirits were simply uplifting.
My heart is filled with gratitude for each of you who attended or made it possible.
Thank you to our hosts with the most: the Utah Governor’s Office, two mayors- Ralph Becker and Ben McAdams, and Visit Salt Lake. The Rotary, the State of Utah, KAICCID and Claremont Lincoln University stepped up as major sponsors of the 2015 Parliament. These generous gifts afforded our producing much of the work which went into this event, gave us a Golden Banquet, and helped multiple speakers make the journey to the Parliament.
My Experience at the Parliament of World Religions
I was both a roamer and a stuffer of bags. Both were great awareness builders: one mindful, the other a silent meditation. As a roamer I met many wonderful people including Dr. Rangimarie Turuki Rose Pere – a Maori elder from New Zealand, Ralph Clingan a Philosophy professor, Marais Choufani an editor and professional writer, and Mary Lyons an Ojibwa Elder and Grandmothers Council Member. All largely happenstance meetings where people shared their stories and we were lost and than found together. I joked that it was all about the journey, Rose — like Naima — saw the effort as being “all about the love.” In this great sea of people, such unlikely meetings were the strange attractors that were the theme of my Parliament.
But it was stuffing the bags given free to parliament attendees that would be the most rewarding work. There I met the volunteers and shared in community on an assembly line. I restocked magazines and pamphlets and walked the circle around and around information on interfaith issues and understanding. It was not as sexy as roaming but I came to realize that it was the true monastic work, set aside from the meeting at registration or the eddies of roaming, our little group learned that, like the story of the potato peeler that while he was not strong enough to be a soldier or smart enough to be a monk, he was good a peeling potatoes and both groups, soldiers and monks, would come from days away to sit and watch him peel potatoes for he was perfect at it.
I was done with volunteering so at 10am, my wife, Samira, and I attended the Parliament. I had a few speeches that I wanted to see and some things that I wanted her to see but for the most part, we wandered and wondered. We enjoyed a diversity of music, met with the woman presenting our organization, Women of the World, for lunch, snuck in and out of some talks, walked through the exhibits, and just generally enjoyed the company of one another and reverence for the shared sacred.
I had my first opportunity to walk a labyrinth. During this “eyes open” awareness/mindful meditation, I had the opportunity to reflect on life’s twists and turns in approaching the center, the purpose of life. Sometimes what you see is unappealing, sometimes inspiring, sometimes it is what you expect from previous turns in the same direction, sometimes it is not. People may cross your path, unaware they are walking through something you hold in reverence, sometimes they are ahead of you on the path, sometimes behind. In my heart I spun, arms outstretched, smiling, tears streaming down my eyes; my body instead pivoted thru the center and marched out at a radius toward where I left my wife.
In my first opportunity to walk a labyrinth…, I had the opportunity to reflect on life’s twists and turns in approaching the center, the purpose of life. Sometimes what you see is unappealing, sometimes inspiring, sometimes it is what you expect from previous turns in the same direction, sometimes it is not
Over a bottle of wine at home, Samira and I discussed the scared experiences that we had shared that day. It was a perfect ending to an overall soulful day. I further appreciate that we are all so much more than what we share and the secrets of what has harmed us, scared us, scarred us, and inspired us are held in by fear of rejection or misunderstanding. However, when we have the courage to be authentic and let others understand our hopes and fears, we let love grow. And again, the day ends how the Parliament started, with the only thing I know being love and being loved.
It was with great joy that I moved my Parliament celebration into the mountains with Women of the World’s Autumn Colors hike. There is something great about a collective sharing in reverence for both the beautiful landscape of the place I call home AND for my lovely wife. Those she serves are utterly enamored of her and I GET IT! We hiked, shared a meal, and hiked again. A sacred space, a ritual of communing with nature, admiring the energy of youth, and the kindness of friendship and service. We returned in the rain after a heartfelt midday.
As Samira left to shop for some essentials, I sat on the patio and read cover to cover the Crossroads of Should and Must by Elle Luna. I shared it with Samira. I plan on doing the exercises here but feel my MUST has always been writing, developing thoughts and stories.
There are so many useful tidbits in this book. It’s inspiring and practical. What it means for me is that I need to work on finding a marketing, education development,training/organizational development, or creative job that allows me to write more. I also need to make for time to write. Even if for just a 1/2 hour. But do it every day. Have lots of fun projects to work on. Work on getting some freelance jobs, spend money promoting and upgrading examinedlifeliving.org and looking for speaking opportunities, even if just in book clubs!
Sunday started more like an ordinary weekend with work at the computer and walking our dog Prince before we got our transport together for the office and a final couple of hours at the Parliament of World Religions. There were a couple of things that I WANTED to see but found that when I got there, all I really wanted was to share with Samira what she was interested in. We cuddled as we watched the Sheiks play on the stage and than took down her booth. We made it back home after a stop at the office in time to sit together and enjoy “A Good Wife” before bed.
Parliament for Brotherhood and (now) Sisterhood
As much as anything, the Parliament of World Religions is for sharing in humanity. All movements, prophets, scriptures, rituals, songs, and worships are represented and regarded in their most positive light. Judgment is suspended.
There is a palpable feeling of improvement, of trying to understanding one another in order to better understand oneself.
It is easy to get caught up in the differences and in the misunderstandings – the are numerous and when they turn violent are newsworthy. However, our shared history on this planet and the very recent ability of most all of us to understand our linkage from numerous different sources, marks the progress we need to make in the future.
In his opening remarks at the first Parliament of World Religions on 11 September 1893 in Chicago, Swami Vivekananda, gave a famous speech that echoes still in the hearts of the interfaith community that attends.
“The present convention, which is one of the most august assemblies ever held, is in itself a vindication, a declaration to the world of the wonderful doctrine preached in the Gita: ‘Whosoever comes to me, though whatsoever form, I reach him; all men are struggling through paths which in the end lead to me.’
“Sectarianism, bigotry, and it’s horrible descendant, fanaticism, have long possessed this beautiful Earth. They have filled the earth with violence, drenched it often and often with human blood, destroyed civilization, and sent whole nations to despair. Had it not been for these horrible demons, human society would be far more advanced than it is now.
“But their time is come; and I fervently hope that the bell that tolled this morning in honor of this convention may be the death-knell of all fanaticism, of all persecutions with the sword or with the pen, and of all uncharitable feelings between persons wending their way to the same goal.”
The host community and the place I call home, Salt Lake City, wraps western hospitality together into an appreciation for what Kent Nerburn calls the “Ordinary Sacred.” We are respectful, the majority religious community of Latter Day Saints and various communities of minorities alike in our reverence of the weight of the silence perpetrated by millions of people on the shared sabbath. For some that means enjoying the smaller lines at Costco, for others there is silence and more subtle works, and for still others, hours of services… for me it is why I convincingly (now, for it is a learned behavior!) call Salt Lake City home. It is also why it made a perfect host city for the 2015 Parliament of World Religions.
[The book Ordinary Sacred] is a reminder to keep our hearts open to the winds of God’s whispers. It is not important that we know from whence they come or to where they are going, or even if we give them a name. All we need to know is that the moments of love, of caring, of the unprotected human heart, whenever we encounter them, are the voice of the spirit, blowing like the wind through our everyday lives. – Ken Nerburn
We are still working out fellowship in our shared appreciation for the sacred here in Salt Lake City. While the hard work of the Lambda Alliance and other gay legal groups enabled SLC to host one of the first same-sex marriages in the tumult of the summer’s marriage equality activism, there are still measures that need to be taken to grant equal access to our poor, our immigrants, and women. The Parliament of World Religions, for the first time in its 122 year history, chose to start its conference seeking out the opinions and needs of the later group, the women of religion who – in many sects today – are maligned in their practice and restricted from holding ecclesiastical positions.
This was a challenge to religion that surfed the same sentiment as the first Parliament – if the proprietors of god(s)’ love do not practice equality, how can we expect others to stop repressing women? I take this a bit further from my secular bent: if God’s laws are unequal in any way and are slow to change, how are God’s traditions representative of objective moral truths that the modern world has categorically proven? Women are equal to men, there is no question, no rationale for any objection to this, and traditions that stubbornly fail to evolve on this very simple point are destined to fade. One of the biggest reasons why I cannot “take the plunge” back into religion is that it has rules that do not match with my modern liberal values.
One of the booths that I sought out in this regard was the Roman Catholic Women Priests. Having been raised in a Roman Catholic home, I understood a clear dividing line between the ecclesiastical roles of women in the nunnery and men in the priesthood. Yet, the Roman Catholic Women Priests have challenged this division and patriarchy and, according to their website, “broken the Church’s Canon Law 1024, an unjust law that discriminates against women… despite what some bishops may lead the faithful to believe, our ordinations are valid because we are ordained in apostolic succession within the Roman Catholic Church.”
Prayer for Vocations to the Priesthood: Ever present God; open the hearts and minds of all people, and inspire us to use the unique gifts you have given us for loving service to each other. We pray especially now, for those women whose gifts are best suited to serve your Church as ordained priests. Empower them with courage as they answer your call and strengthen them for humble service, great compassion, and insightful wisdom. Support them through their ministries and enlighten the leadership of your Church to practice the equality that Jesus modeled to embrace all women and men whom you have gifted for sacramental service. Strengthen your Holy Spirit within those you have chosen for priestly ministry. May they answer your call and follow you with generous hearts. We ask this in the name of Jesus, who called Mary Magdalene and Phoebe – as well as Peter and Paul – to be ministers in the early Christian communities. Amen
In this last statement of the Prayer for Vocations to the Priesthood, Women Priests highlight two early ministers within the church, Mary Magdalene and Phoebe, as examples of Jesus’s intentions for women in the priesthood. The first person that Jesus reveals himself to on the first Easter was Mary Magdalene, and called on her to, according to Pope Hippolytus (170 to 236 AD), “go out on apostolic missions as the first gospel minister.” Phoebe was praised by Saint Paul for her leadership of the church of Cenchreae (Romans 16:1–2) and there are numerous other examples of women in ecclesiastical roles in inscriptions, art, and literature from the time of the early church.
This ties with another session that I read up on but did not get a chance to see, Dr. Elizabeth Ursic’s “Women, Ritual, and Power: Placing Female Imagery of God in Christian Worship.” This talk, based on her book of the same name, Dr. Ursic (elizabethursic.com), promotes passages like those below that use feminine imagery to promote God, wisdom, and grace that are being used by small contemporary Christian congregations to express female imagery of God in worship.
Although she is but one, she can do all things, and while remaining in herself, she renews all things; in every generation she passes into holy souls and makes them friends of God, and prophets. Wisdom of Solomon 7:27
Wisdom teaches her children and gives help to those who seek her. Whoever loves her loves life, and those who seek her from early morning are filled with joy. Whoever holds her fast inherits glory. Ecclesiasticus 4:11–13
Opening the Parliament of World Religions to Unite the Heart of Humanity with a Focus on Women felt like a first epoch in religion’s much needed evolution. Our ability to achieve and lead others to transcendence is not dependent on gender or any other category. It is more likely that a return to the qualities of heroines – free-thought, creativity, compassion, and articulateness – will solve more of the dynamic issues than continuing stubbornly with the brute force methods of the hero.
I highly recommend this first plenary – A Focus on Women and while its entirety is inspiring, there are some important moments.[16:30] Grandmother Mary Lyons opening prayer beginning with the eagle cry with focus on the breath of “breathing in Mother Earth, breathing out our ancestors.” [0:40:02] Mary Ann Williamson’s impassioned speech calling on women that “you know what needs to be done, now go out and do it.”
The first plenary panel was also amazing and had inspiring moments.[1:07:00] Valarie Kaur on the matriarchal line of women and the love of a mother not only for her children, but for mothers that have lost sons or daughters. She pleas with our humanity, organic-entity-to-organic-entity to respect and revere the bodies of everyone – for revolutionary love. [15:30] Grandmother Rose Pere gave her speech that was at once tribal and contemporary, that shook the spirit out of a slumber and proclaimed that “all we know is love.”
Rituals: The Process of Parliament
In each corner of the Parliament of World Religions there is a ritual ongoing. A quiet prayer circle, the loud dance and chant of a Hare Krishna, the flowery sacred space of women, or the slow circling of the sacred fire of the First Nations people all occur simultaneously. Rites in silence reverberate with rites of music, beauty looks upon austerity in reverence, while sage, incense, and clean, focused breaths are inhaled in rites promoting the present.
I had the opportunity to walk a silent march for women, to pay reverence for the sacred hoop of the First Nations People around the sacred fire, and to walk the labyrinth. I sat in eyes-open mindful meditation and in silent eyes-closed contemplative meditation, I sat and listened to speakers and prayers, I sat and read. I served – leading, seeking, and following.
Rituals dog-ear a page of our lives, inviting us to revisit transcendence with new appreciation and emotions.
Walking, sitting, eating, praying, meditation, breathing, and talking are all given special significance at the Parliament because of the unity of people of all backgrounds and faiths that are sharing them alongside you. However, this is only one reason to inscribe any of these common activities with sacredness. You are walking in common with our ancestors and as an important part of the process of our species becoming who we are. When you breath, you are interring gas molecules of all shapes and states of being-nonbeing, that like you, have been in existence for all time. As you eat, you exchange energy with other life, either flora or fauna. As you speak, you give information, developing synergy on concepts, creating understanding, offering thanks, praise, and solace.
There is a depth to old practices, performed ceremonially. Rituals dog-ear a page of our lives, inviting us to revisit transcendence with new appreciation and emotions. When we flip through the folded-over pages of another, we find traditions that carry the vestigial organs of the source.
Mysticism persists in our mitochondria. We celebrate ourselves (birthdays) and our relation to the sun (New Year), we make sacrifices and give thanks.
I believe that the ritual of giving thanks – gratitude – with etymology stemming to the Latin for showing esteem or favor when pleased, has field lines that emanate out from those touched by grace.
This force field of thanks is on display in the commercial where a person sees a car they favor and happen to smile at someone passing by at the same time. The smile bifurcates throughout the community of the commercial. It happens in real life, just more rarely.
So I want to just add my measure of gratitude to those I volunteered with, the speakers I aspire to one day share the stage with, and the participants that collectively shared in the hopeful spirit of transcendent grace.